Girl About World: The art of Japanese bartending
Our jet-setting blogger Laura Foster visits a tiny Tokyo bar to discover a profession that is regarded as something of a craft in the Far East and is taken aback by the dedication and expertise shown by those who regard bartending as a job for life.
Everyone loves a good cocktail when they’re on holiday. In most foreign lands, it takes some effort to find the best bars and restaurants off the beaten trail.
You have to dig that little bit deeper in Japan, and especially in Tokyo, to uncover the gems – with space as tight as it is, buildings are split with businesses placed on all floors, meaning that many bars and restaurants are above and below street level here.
A night in the Ginza district of Tokyo offers a fabulous opportunity to gain some insight into the trends and rituals of Japanese bartending, as I recently discovered.
Heading down a fairly empty street in Ginza, the business district in Tokyo, on a dark winter’s night, I take a small lift up to the fourth floor of an anonymous building, walk down a narrow corridor and find myself in a tiny, amber-lit bar.
This is Bar High Five, haven of owner Hidetsugu Ueno, who just so happens to also be the head of the International Department of the Nippon Bartenders Association (NBA).
Having studied in America, Hidetsugu has developed a speakeasy-style feel to this tiny bar that comfortably seats 20 people at most.
A couple of hours spent with Ueno is both informative and divine – the bespoke cocktails he mixes to suit individual tastes are second-to-none, a fact made all the more surprising seeing as he doesn’t drink. “Like most Japanese people, I get drunk easily,” he explains.
Japanese bartenders take their craft seriously – it is a career to stick with for life, rather than burning bright then burning out, as is the trend in other countries. They are always reaching for perfection in the drinks that they serve, looking into the tiniest details. A trainee bartender apparently works as an assistant for three years before he is allowed to make cocktails himself.
There are two main areas in which Japanese bartenders have made contributions to mixology in recent years – ice and the Japanese Hard Shake.
Much has been written about ice and its use in cocktails, and it was the Japanese who really blazed the trail in this area. Ueno shows me his ice cooler – a wooden bowl with ice at two different temperatures, minus five and minus 20 degrees Centigrade.
He explains how he buys ice from a company that slow-freezes water over two days in order to achieve very clear and hard blocks, and shows pictures of an ice cube in the shape of a brilliant cut diamond. This is his signature ice cut that his former employer Kishi Hisashi – a remaining close associate – developed.
Hisashi, the man in charge of Star Bar Ginza and the director of the Technical Research Department of the NBA, is just as precise with his details and every bit as informative as Ueno.
After demonstrating the famous Japanese Hard Shake that has found employment in bars worldwide, where the vigorous shaking motion splinters the ice into the liquid to maintain temperature as the ice shards melt, he shows me the ‘Infinity Shake’, a rolling motion that moves the ice cubes in a figure of eight in the shaker, creating microbubbles that are much smaller than those found in beer.
These tiny microbubbles, he explains, cushions the palate from the high levels of alcohol in cocktails such as the Rob Roy he mixes for me.
There are plenty of quirks in the industry over here. Japanese bartenders are expected to find their own tools for the trade, and these are inventive and practical – ice is carved up with everything from ice picks to sushi knives. Ueno uses a plastic shaker to prevent ice breaking off into the liquid, he tastes with plastic spoons rather than straws, and uses a hand mixer to ensure that ingredients are properly blended.
Emphasis is placed on finding the freshest ingredients for cocktails, with fruit being the key current focus in Japan. Both Ueno and Hisashi proudly show me the fresh fruit ingredients that they are using, often expensive and carefully sourced. The most common cocktails being made right now are gin-based fresh fruit cocktails.
Another unexpected observation is thrown up during these late-night bar exchanges – Japan has a thing for the isle known as the Queen of the Hebrides.
During the recent trip to Yamazaki whisky distillery, I was informed by the guide there that smoky whisky wasn’t that popular in Japan, but this information seemed redundant when looking at the back bars of both Bar High Five and Star Bar Ginza, which both display an impressive array of Islay whiskies, including Laphroiag, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
Ueno informs me that Islay malts are popular amongst Japanese drinks connoisseurs, while Kishi shows me a back copy of Japanese Esquire with a five page feature on the island and its distilleries.
The entrance of Star Bar Ginza is in fact heralded by the cut-off end of an Ardbeg cask hanging over the basement steps. How’s that for excellent taste?
After an evening in Ginza, one thing is clear. Bartending in Japan is seen as an art form. It is approached in much the same way as anything else here – with reverence, insane attention to detail, and obsession in achieving perfection. And judging by the nectar I was presented with, they’re pretty damn close to achieving it.
Laura Foster, 16.02.2010